Luang Prabang is a very nice city in Laos. One of the quintessential experiences of travel in Laos is to take a boat along the Mekong river between the border town of Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. It is pretty standard. Hundreds of tourists (and a number of locals) do the route daily. The slow boat(s) takes two days to take you to the other end. You stop at a town in between to sleep for the night.
Huay Xai is the town next to the northern most border between Thailand and Laos. People crossing over to Laos after visiting Pai or Chiang Mai make use of it. On the Lao side, Huay Xai is home to the awesome Gibbon Experience, where travellers get to zipline over the Lao jungle. (See post.) It is a first or last activity for many people travelling in Laos.
I had done with my gibbon experience and made some friends there. A few of us decided to do the boat trip together. People tried various tricks to get money out of us including telling us that they could get us good seats. This turned out to be a lie. The tickets are numbered, but it is a free for all once you are on the boat. I also realised that it was cheaper to just get two tickets for both days than to get a single ticket. The difference is that a single ticket might include transportation to the ferry at the start, which I made use of. Another trick the travel agents play to fool people is by picking people up at different times. The only boat leaves from Huay Xai at 11:00. If you get picked up at 09:00 you will just wait for two hours.
I was wandering around the town the previous day when I came across a sign: “Lao whisky – take one for the slow boat”. I liked the idea. I picked up a 400ml bottle for 12000 kip, about $2. The “whisky” was colourless and clear like water. I picked up a few paper cups as well.
A tuk-tuk driver picked me up and I met with my friends Jalissa and Merel. We hung around as we waited to be told that the boat was ready. The girls had packed lunches. I intended to finish off the crumbling baked fruit bars that I carried. We bought big bottles of water. These would be available on the boat, but for a higher price. At about 10:30 we were told that the boat was ready. We walked to the jetty and found our friends Julie and Chris (from the Gibbon Experience) walking over. The boat was long with two seats on either side and more than 20 rows of seats. Behind the seats was the toilet and behind that was the engine. There was a bit of space in the engine area for the crew and a whole bunch of backpacks. We got on the boat and found that the ticket numbers did not matter. Most of the tourists had already gotten on board and I could not find a seat next to my friends. I found a seat next to another Dutch girl named Cait.
A local boarded and informed us of double and twin rooms available at Pakbeng, our midway stop, for 100000 kip. We would be picked up by a vehicle and taken there and transported back to the harbour in the morning. Cait and I agreed to split a twin. We should not have; the rooms turned out to be a lot cheaper and plentiful and the hotel provided us with no transportation.
The boat set off. The scenery was great. The river was muddy brown in colour. The sky was a brilliant blue. What changed were the rocks on the river, the trees on the banks and the occasional rocky or otherwise sandy banks. In the distance we could also see karsts now and then. Karsts are limestone hills that appear to jut out of the flat-seeming ground. They are rocky, but the trees have fought their way up some of them. Karsts form beautiful backdrops to read a book against, so I did just that.
Once I finished my book, I looked for new things to do. I remembered the cheap alcohol and pulled out the bottle and the cups. It was definitely not a whisky. Sake would be the most similar alcohol that I had tried before. The drink was only about 20% alcohol. Cait tried it reluctantly but she was clearly not pleased with it. I started pouring for my other friends and neighbours. Chris had a dedicated wooden cup just for this purpose. A Canadian couple named Brad and Christine poured me some of the local “whisky” that they had bought.
A French group caught my eye, so I went over to pour them some. They poured me some Ricard and a Ballantine’s Finest whisky. This group was different from the rest of the people whom I had talked to. They were older persons including retirees. I talked to the bunch for about twenty minutes. The most enthusiastic talker was Rene, a man from Brittany with a very nice pointy beard, who spoke no English. His friend Didier translated for him. Didier proved to be well travelled and erudite. Rene was excited that I came over to share my drink and chat. It seemed to be his first trip to this part of the world; he would clearly have difficulty travelling by himself with his lack of basic English knowledge. Rene invited me to his home in Brittany and taught me to say cheers in Breton: “yar mat”.
We arrived at Pakbeng after a very painless boat ride. Cait and I walked to our place and checked in. We had dinner, came across a bunch from the boat and joined them for drinks. I bought a nicer bottle of “Lao whisky” for the second day.
We had a bigger boat for the second day. It had three seats on the left and was longer. There did seem to be two boats worth of people on this big boat as compared with the previous day. We found no free twin-seats, but I got a seat next to Jalissa and Merel. The drill was the same. We relaxed for a bit. I waited until lunchtime, then pulled out the alcohol and the paper cups. Life was good.
Eventually we arrived at Luang Prabang – well, not exactly. We arrived at the jetty about ten kilometres from the city. We climbed up to the banks where they were charging 20000 kip per person to the city. It was a scam like many others targeting tourists. Someone found a songtheaw willing to take us to the city for 80000 in all. About eight of us piled in. They called off the deal. Eventually the Canadians and I walked off toward the main road and found a tuk tuk willing to take us for 15000 each: a small victory.
The slow boat to Luang Prabang was a very enjoyable and relaxing experience and I recommend it strongly if you visit Laos. You can have it your way: read a book, watch the scenery, chat with the others, doze off, all of the above!